Collected Stories « PREV | NEXT »: The Watchdog Growls

April 19, 2010

Dance criticism

I was pleased for her and for the profession of paid dance criticism when Sarah Kaufman won this year's Pulitzer Prize for criticism. But there are two anomalies to her well-deserved win.

First, she's one of the last of a dying breed. Apart from her and Alastair Macaulay, my successor at the NY Times, who else is a full-time staff dance critic in American journalism anymore? Maybe readers will write in with other names, but there aren't many.

Second, Sarah flies refreshingly against the grain in her aesthetic. And she has a nice taste for polemics. As she pointed out in a Washington Post piece last May -- one that triggered a roundtable discussion in Dance Magazine -- a Balanchinian orthodoxy hangs heavy over American dance and American ballet companies and American criticism, when you add in the more prominent regular freelancers. It sometimes seems now that the entire American modern-dance tradition was just some sort of blip in the history of dance, which is the history of ballet, and that the myriad experiments and innovations in European choreography are mere vulgar trash. Yes, a few historical oldsters win guarded respect, and Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and Mark Morris have their cautious admirers. Most of these veterans have choreographed for ballet companies or had their work adapted by those companies.

That Kaufman would challenge the Balanchine/ballet orthodoxy so boldly, and then win the Pulitzer, might be interpreted as a message. Except that one wonders just how attuned the Pulitzer criticism panel and overall board are to this polemical tension. Maybe they just thought she was a good critic.

Now, fresh from her victory, Kaufman has followed up with a review in this past Saturday's Post in which she blasts a Washington Ballet triple bill as "a demonstration of the stultifying effect that the national Balanchine obsession has had on new choreography." That's her lead. She ends her second graf with: "But it's clear that when the Kool-Aid chalice was passed around at the holy communion of neoclassical groupthink, Armitage, Fonte and Liang" -- the choreographers in question -- "drank deep."

I espoused similar views during my tenure as chief dance critic at the NYT (both of us pay due homage to Balanchine's genius; it's his latter-day influence and pedantry that are so troubling). Amusingly, I was also attacked as a sexist. Kaufman concludes her lead graf with: "Crotches -- cranked open, screaming at you to notice -- hit a new expressive high mark," and remarks later that a dancer "flashes her crotch at us a few more times." I tell you, girls can get away with this stuff while us boys get blasted. Life is SO unfair...! 
April 19, 2010 11:34 AM | | Comments (4)


Regarding the modern/post-modern dance - not dead yet - perhaps it's strength, as always, is that it continues experimentation and innovation rather than BIG show values. Congratulations to all surviving dance writers and critics.

As part of the broader conversation, you may be interested in a new series that we just premiered on Hulu, DancePulp. Among the first interviewees are Chris Wheeldon and Lourdes Lopez discussing the legacy of Balanchine and the importance of introducing audiences to new choreographers. Links below:

Maidi raises an important point that I think is often overlooked. As the NYT wrote on Sunday about one choreographer, this generation's choreographers are not necessarily looking to be the next Taylor or Morris. I ran a NYC service org for several years, and in many conversations with choreographers, I was shocked that not a single one wanted to be the "Next Taylor" although I thought they had the audience appeal to attract larger audiences. They didn't want the responsibility, being tied down to one company, artform, fundraising, etc. that a "big" company would demand. The current financial picture makes it improbable if not impossible as well. It begins to feel that we are heading for a cycle, or, I fear, an age in which modern dance (and all its isms) will take a lower profile in the spectrum, with five or six companies filling 470 seats once a year with an intensely loyal and eager audience. Scores, if not hundreds of smaller companies performing in small or smaller venues to enthusiastic audiences. Of course, Ailey (a repertory company) and the big ballet companies will continue to do their things, but modern dance will become an aficionado form, attracting small but devoted followers. Its mostly there already.

Yes ballet will survive in its old and more contemporary styles but it's important that we appreciate the values that were present in respective eras. Modern dance served (and serves) to challenge old fashioned ideas. But even modern dance has to adjust to contemporary ideas.Where there is well established technique (in various styles) stage dance has a better chance at surviving the challenges of having to readjust its vision. Unfortunately really innovative choreographers are few and far between, ones that understand the purposes of art while at the same time leading the fans 'by the hand' to exploring new vistas of their fantasies as well as sharing the beauty of dance, while educating them......not so?

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